All aboard Central Station Hotel where everybody's doing the Locomotion

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - "If you think about Memphis, what do you think about most? What is Memphis most known for?," a speaker asked at a Memphis Rotary Club luncheon.

"Music!," Rotarians answered.

"What else?" the speaker queried.

"Barbecue!" Rotarians replied.

"That's a perfect answer," said McLean Wilson, an executive from Kemmons Wilson Companies who revealed to Memphis Rotary a few amenities coming to the planned Central Station Hotel on South Main Street in Downtown Memphis.

"We're not going to be a barbecue hotel," Wilson joked.  "So the music is going to be a massive component of this hotel. It's going to be interactive and it's going to be real," said the grandson of Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inns and a long list of other entrepreneurial endeavors that blossomed in Memphis.

The younger Wilson, who clearly inherited an entrepreneurial gene from his legendary forefather, started his presentation with an image overhead.

It featured  his grandfather in front of a billboard that he had created that read, "Positive action by all of us will keep Memphis growing."

McLean Wilson seems to have adopted the billboard's message as his mission, having devoted the last seven years to help transform the old Sears Crosstown warehouse into a living vertical village called Crosstown Concourse.

The 1 million-plus square foot, 90-year-old building was rededicated on August 19 with Church Health as its anchor tenant alongside a who's who of Memphis non-profits, including ALSAC-St Jude, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, and many others.

Wilson became a key player in the resurrection of Crosstown Concourse that also includes 265 apartments, dozens of retail outlets, and at least one corporate headquarters, nexAIR.

It is also a building dedicated to art, education, and uplifting the Crosstown neighborhood in a new and powerful way.

"I am a man of prayer and we prayed a lot," said Wilson about discerning how to use the massive space at Crosstown Concourse.

Ultimately, Wilson and a team of creative thinkers adopted a concept popularized by one of the project's architects called urban magnets.

"Urban magnets is a filter through which we thought about all the ideas and thoughts of what you could have in Crosstown," Wilson said.

"What are those things that are inherent in the community or in the building that are unique to that place?" Wilson wondered aloud to help Rotarians understand what came to be at the Concourse.

Wilson says he was invited to create the Central Station Hotel by Memphis real estate development wizard Henry Turley, who's in the process of building a multi-family residential complex called South Line at Central Station.

The residential complex will have some nice neighbors, including Memphis Farmer's Market, a five-screen movie Malco theater built by the Tashie family, the new hotel and an all-new Amtrak station.

Intrigued by the complexity of reimagining the train station site, Wilson and his company are using the same kind of analytical thinking in planning the new Central Station Hotel that was used at the Concourse.

Noting the nearby Big River Crossing, National Civil Rights Museum, restaurants, and other new businesses on South Main Street, Wilson told Rotarians, "Y'all are all Memphians so you know that the core of what is unique to Memphis and especially Downtown is really gravitating to the South Main area."

Wilson and his team are now dedicated to creating a unique musical experience inside the new hotel.

"Hudson Hall, the arrival hall, will be converted into a bar that we'd like to call the Living Room for South Main," Wilson said. "We want people to know that when you're in Central Station,  there's no doubt you're in Memphis, Tennessee."

To that end, Wilson and his team are planning to install a high-end sound system for the hotel, created by a world renown sound designer.

"We're working with a local guy and he makes high-end speakers, the best-kept secret in Memphis. His name is Jim Thompson and he runs Eggleston Works.  He makes these speakers on Broad Ave. and he sells them all over the world to audiophiles. We've done some collaborations with him about making that bar in that area something that's really a special place to come listen to music. And all the music that will be played will be Memphis based, Memphis connected. It'll definitely be a place you want to be," Wilson said.

You'll still be able to catch the train at Central Station but Amtrak will move east from its current location.

"The hotel lobby will be where the current Amtrak lobby is," Wilson said. "Just west of the current Amtrak lobby, we're going to do a big outdoor patio that will be heavily landscaped. Just a great outdoor area that will be kind of perch and overlook not only the movie theater but also the Farmer's Market."

Wilson displayed artists renderings of the Central Station Hotel's entrance (on the third level of Central Station) as well as looks at the interiors of the attractive lobby, a sampling of the hotel's 123 rooms and a wide view of the spectacular bar currently named Living Room on South Main.

Wilson gave Rotarians the first peek at Central Station Hotel images and said he's planning to present them to the general public in the not-too-distant future.

A new 4,000 square foot restaurant will find a home right on the busy corner of South Main St. and G.E. Patterson Ave., across from the Arcade Restaurant, Memphis Escape Rooms, and Ernestine and Hazel's.

"We don't have a concept yet. We're working on that now," Wilson said of the eatery that his company intends to run there.

Again, Wilson mentioned the centrality of prayer to his deliberations on what should go into the Central Station Hotel.

"We prayed. It was a different building but the same prayer nonetheless: that we were doing things for the greater good."

That's the kind of spirit Kemmons Wilson infused in his family and his many entrepreneurial ventures, even though he was just "granddaddy" to McLean, his siblings, and many cousins.

"It wasn't until I went to college that I understood who my grandfather was. I was taking a class in business school and he was chapter 7 in my leadership class. It was the first time it dawned on me that he had done something really spectacular," said Wilson, an obvious heir to his family's spirit of Memphis philanthropy and sharp business acumen.

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